A City Harvest
Jeff and Adina Bialas signed the mortgage on their upstate New York farm six days before Hurricane Irene nearly completely destroyed their fall harvest.
The day before the hurricane I had seen Jeff at my neighborhood's weekly Greenmarket. I was buying bags of his beefsteak tomatoes ("Don't call them New Jersey tomatoes," he admonished with a smile. "We're a New York farm."). The next day I would can 15 pounds of them while waiting for Irene to arrive. As I bagged my tomatoes Jeff proudly spoke of getting through all the last hurdles to make his farm ownership official, the support they got from the USDA, and the thrill of attending his closing. He also showed gallows humor encouraging all his customers to buy more, reminding everyone of the looming storm and uncertain future. "Get 'em while you can," he'd say. He wasn't entirely joking.
Jeff and Adina seem to share the two traits needed to be farmers: optimism and steel. They had started the farm nearly two years earlier, cobbling together pieces of land they would buy or rent to create fields to grow not just tomatoes but also greens, nine kinds of potatoes, three varieties of onions, plus greens, herbs, squash, carrots and altogether more than 100 different vegetable varieties. They sell directly to chefs and restaurants plus through a CSA, at one NYC Greenmarket, and various farmers markets. See the link below for more information.
J&A Bialas Farm grows its vegetables using organic methods but because they don't do all the USDA organic paperwork or can meet every guideline, they can't officially say they're an organic farm. This is, to my thinking, a technicality because no certification could make the Bialas vegetables more meticulously grown and harvested. Or more deliciously inspiring to any home cook.
After Hurricane Irene, we didn't see Jeff for a few weeks. Between the storm and the rain that cruelly lingered for weeks afterwards, J&A Bialas Farm lost 90% of its crops, although farms just a few miles away were barely harmed. Thus is the randomness of nature. And luck.
But when Jeff finally reappeared at the Greenmarket, my entire Manhattan neighborhood seemed to get a lift. Like a prizefighter who gets back in the ring with an arm in a sling and a bandage over one eye, his usual three tables had been reduced to one. Jeff's tomatoes were gone and he had returned with a spare selection of shallots, herbs, potatoes and onions. But he also came back with a beaming optimism of a kind that if more of us had, the world would be a better place.
This past weekend J&A Bialas Farm set up on West 100th Street and Broadway on a gorgeous autumn Sunday as part of a harvest festival that was raising money for a neighborhood school. They stacked sugar pumpkins on top of bales of hay they'd trucked in from Goshen and sold their own vegetables along with ones from a neighboring farm that hadn't lost its crops. Adina promoted the quality of another farmer's apples, beets and salad greens with the pride as if they were her own. And a bunch of city kids crawled over the bales of hay and pumpkins spilling into Broadway.
How To Cook Fresh Pumpkin
This year's pumpkin crop is a bountiful one. Just as the weather has been a burden for some crops, for others it's been a boon. Remembering that pumpkins aren't just for Halloween or centerpieces, they are also easy to convert into pies and to use in cheesecake, as a ravioli filling, and in soups, stews and chili. You just need to cook the flesh, purée it thoroughly, and drain it of any excess water. Then use it as if it came out of a can.
In Michele Stuart's new cookbook, Perfect Pies, she includes instructions for how to process a five-pound pumpkin. She recommends using sugar pumpkins which are less stringy than the field pumpkins that are commonly used for Halloween Jack-O-Lantern carving. But any pumpkin you buy at a farmer's market or grocery store can be prepared this way -- just be prepared to remove all the seeds and interior stringy stuff.
Wash the exterior of the pumpkin in warm water (no soap) and pat dry with a paper towel. Cut the pumpkin in half; a serrated knife is good to use for this. Discard the stem. Use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and scrape the stringy stuff out of the interior; if you have a grapefruit spoon with a serrated tip, ice cream scoop, or melon baller -- any of these can help scrape the strings out.
Save the seeds for toasting:
- Rinse the seeds under cold running water and pick out any pulp and strings. Pat dry with a paper towel.
- Place the seeds in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet that you've lightly oiled with canola or olive oil.
- Bake in a 325° F oven until toasted, about 25 minutes; give the pan a shake every five minutes, starting at 10 minutes which lets you keep an eye on the seeds and also helps in their toasting.
- Sprinkle with salt or a mixture of salt and a pinch of cayenne or chipotle ground pepper immediately upon taking the pan out of the oven. Let cool and store in an airtight container. Enjoy as a snack or sprinkle on soup or vegetables.
Back to the pumpkin:
- Cook the pumpkin using either a steamer or your microwave. To steam it, cut the pumpkin into big pieces that fit your steamer. Steam until the flesh is soft and tender, about 20 minutes. To cook in the microwave, cook in a covered container for about 15 minutes on high and then in additional five-minute increments, checking until the flesh is very soft.
- You can also roast the pieces on a rimmed sheet pan, at 350° F for about 45 minutes, also until tender, or use a pressure cooker.
- Once completely cooked, let the pieces cool for a few minutes until they're cool enough to handle. Remove the cooked pulp by either scooping it out with a large spoon or by peeling the skin off with a paring knife.
- Pumpkin can contain a lot of water. You can remove it before puréeing by placing the pieces of peeled, soft pumpkin between layers of cheesecloth and working over a large bowl or sink, pressing down to remove any excess water. You may have to do this several times to remove all the water. Or else you can purée the cooked flesh and then afterwards drain it overnight using a paper coffee filter or in a sieve that's been lined with cheesecloth.
- Purée the flesh in a food processor -- working in batches if necessary -- and process until the pumpkin is completely smooth. You can also use a hand immersion blender but be very thorough so that no chunks of pumpkin remain.
- You can use the pumpkin purée immediately or freeze it for up to a year. Use in your favorite recipes, either for sweet desserts or savory dishes, just as you would a can of pumpkin.
As for pumpkin pie, I find that people are never neutral about it. They either love it or consider it, as a friend says, "just another vegetable" and not a dessert. But count me among those who think it's one of the best parts of the fall menu. I prefer my pumpkin pie to be spicy and usually use the recipe in The Silver Palate Cookbook, serving it with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream and a glass of vintage port.
No matter how you like your pumpkin, or your pie, please remember our local farmers and support them when you can. They not only bring us our daily dinners. They also can teach us that the rain will eventually stop.